Salvation for the Perishing
The exhaustion of a long day hit the disciples like a sedative. Their teacher had spent all day sharing the wisdom of his parables. Sometimes he spoke to the crowds that gathered around him. Sometimes he taught the disciples alone. He spoke of mustard seeds and farms and the Kingdom of God. He spoke of lights and bushels, and sometimes his meaning was clear and other times it wasn’t.
As the sunlight began to fade, the teacher invited his disciples to journey with him the five or so miles across the Sea of Galilee. They all crawled into the boat and set off across smooth waters. Their teacher was clearly even more exhausted than his disciples because he fell asleep almost immediately in the stern of the boat. As the boat neared the middle of the lake and the last of the sunlight left the sky, a mighty wind picked up. Soon the boat was blown adrift as large waves crashed over the gunwales. Once or twice the waves and the wind pushed the boat so hard that it nearly tipped. The disciples, already soaked, baled out water as they cried out to God.
In the chaos, one of the disciples turned and saw his teacher still sleeping soundly in the stern. The wind roared, the waves crashed, the boat nearly capsized and yet, miraculously, the teacher continued to doze. The disciple ran to his teacher and shook him awake. “Teacher, teacher!” He cried, “We are perishing! Don’t you care that we are perishing!?”
The teacher roused from his dreams and looked around at the terrified disciples, at the dark clouds, at the monstrous waves. “Peace.” The teacher said. At first the bewildered disciples thought that the teacher was addressing them. How could they have peace at a moment like this? But then the teacher looked at the waves and the clouds and said, “Be still.” And the storm cleared. Just like that. The clouds parted and the stars shined their light. The wind calmed and left only silence. The waves settled and the boat sat still.
The teacher snuggled back down into the stern, closed his eyes, and said, “You don’t quite get it yet, do you.” And as he slipped back into sleep, his disciples just stared at him, wondering who he was, wondering what to call him. Suddenly “teacher” seemed like a small name for such a big presence.
The calming of the storm is an important moment for the disciples. It happens very early in Jesus’ ministry, when the disciples are still trying to figure out who Jesus is. He has done amazing things like healing and teaching, but other teachers have done those things before. Perhaps Jesus is just another of these great teachers. But then the incident on the sea happens. Jesus, it seems, has control not only over the spiritual things, but the physical things as well. He speaks and creation listens. Perhaps Jesus is not just another of these great teachers.
It’s tempting, with our 21st century minds, to read this story and interpret the events on the lake as just a big storm. But for a first-century mind, it was a whole lot more than that. People in the ancient world believed in spirits and demons. We, by and large, do not. We have relegated ghosts, demons, and spirits to the realm of horror movies or fantasy novels. But for people in the ancient world, these were very real and very dangerous things.
So when the storm comes up on the Sea of Galilee at night, it’s not just a storm. It signifies something far, far worse. It represents evil, the demonic, those terrifying forces that are opposed to God. The disciples are not just afraid of death—in that moment they are afraid of damnation. This storm is coming not just to claim their lives, but to gobble up their souls as well.
You might laugh at that. It’s hard to take demons or evil forces seriously outside of a Marvel movie. It seems particularly old-fashioned to think a storm would be the work of the devil. But lest we start thinking we’re more enlightened than these first-century people, it very well might be that they knew something we have forgotten.
Ancient peoples had a heightened sense of the demonic. We have lost that sense. But I believe the demonic and the evil still surround us. And I don’t mean haunted houses or demon-possessed serial killers. Demons continue to walk the earth in things like addiction, hatred, cancer, abuse, war, and violence. Demons walk the earth in insidious things like shame and self-doubt. How many of you, despite knowing in your brain that God’s grace has saved you, have doubted your salvation in your heart because you feel unworthy or because you did that really shameful thing that no one else knows about and you think is unforgivable? I know I have.
We might try to act like they’re not there, but the forces of evil still rage like a storm in this world, doing everything they can to tear us away from God.
That’s why the disciples’ question on the boat is the right question, even though they didn’t realize it at the time. They turn to Jesus and they cry out, “Teacher! Don’t you care that we are perishing?” I don’t think the disciples really believed Jesus could do anything about the storm. I think they were just terrified and they wanted Jesus to join them in their terror. Of course, Jesus is not worried about the forces of evil because he is the Ultimate Good, and he knows evil can do nothing to him.
So when the disciples asked Jesus, “Teacher! Don’t you care that we are perishing?” they didn’t realize what they were asking. They didn’t realize that Jesus, God incarnate, came to earth because he cared that humanity was perishing, because he wanted to save humanity from perishing. The disciples throw it in his face: “Teacher” they call him, still not understanding that he is more than a teacher, “don’t you care!?”
Have you ever asked God that question? Have you ever had a moment when you felt abandoned or condemned and you turned to God and said, “Don’t you care!?” That was Job’s question. That was Elijah’s question. That was the Psalmist’s question. That’s the question parents ask when their child is diagnosed with cancer. That is the question the addict asks when she just can’t stop using. That’s the question people ask when their family and their neighborhood is reduced to rubble by a drone strike. “Don’t you care!?”
The amazing thing is that Jesus does care. That’s the whole reason he has come. He loves each and every one of us so much that he wants to save us from the roiling storm that seeks to claim us. He wants to redeem us from the forces of evil that tell us we are worthless, unloveable, and bad; that seek to fill us with self-hatred; that seek to turn us against our neighbors. Jesus didn’t just come to keep the disciples from perishing in one storm on the Sea of Galilee; he comes to save all of us from perishing in the great storm of sin and death.
And the good news is that Jesus does exactly what he came here to do. At the end of the story, the disciples ask another good question. They say, “Who is this that even the wind and the waves obey him?” The disciples come to realize that their understanding of Jesus is far too small. He’s not just a teacher. So who is he? That is the question we all should ask about Jesus. Who is this Jesus? Today’s gospel reading shows us that he is the one who has come to save us from the storm. He is not the one who comes to make us feel ashamed or afraid or bad or condemned. He is the one who comes to save us, to love us, to redeem us, to comfort us, and to lead us into eternal life.
A couple years later, the teacher was arrested. One of his disciples betrayed him and the others deserted him. He was given an unfair hearing and he was executed. All hope was lost until a few days later, some of his disciples claimed they saw him again. He was dead and yet he lived. He lingered for a month or so and then he disappeared again.
Many years later, in his old age, one of his disciples thought back to that stormy night, when they almost perished in the sea. He remembered how the teacher calmed the storm. He wished he had known then what he knew now. The teacher did care that they were perishing. He always cared that they were perishing. The teacher did not let them perish then, and he could see now that the teacher would not let them perish now.
He smiled. Who is this that even the wind and the waves obey him?
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